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'A Day On, Not a Day Off': Celebrating MLK Day Through Service

01/16/2016 10:23 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2016

Amidst the increased attention on the subject of racial justice this past year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an opportunity to reflect on our progress with civil rights in this country -- and consider how far we have yet to go. As the King Center notes:

We commemorate Dr. King's inspiring words, because his voice and his vision filled a great void in our nation, and answered our collective longing to become a country that truly lived by its noblest principles. Yet, Dr. King knew that it wasn't enough just to talk the talk, that he had to walk the walk for his words to be credible.

There's a way for all of us to walk the walk -- through service. As Martin Luther King Jr. observed, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?" The Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, organized by the Corporation for Community and National Service, is a way of answering this question and fulfilling the mission of the holiday: empowering individuals, strengthening communities, bridging barriers, creating solutions to social problems, and moving us closer to Dr. King's vision of a beloved community.

For companies, first of all give your employees the (paid) day off. Only 37% do, though the good news is that this number has increased in recent years. Once you get beyond the standard holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving into the more optional holidays like President's Day, MLK Day now tops the list of those holidays given by companies.

The MLK Day of Service is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service, and thus its motto is "a day on, not a day off." So companies should lean forward and engage employees in a coordinated campaign of community impact or point employees towards resources that allow them to volunteer on their own.

As reported by Bloomberg BNA from their survey of how companies observe the holiday, 11 percent of respondents do currently have a program or event regardless of whether they give the holiday or not. Programs range from simple (e.g., emails, posters, and blog posts) to more elaborate (e.g., discussion groups, speakers, memorial celebrations, and volunteer opportunities). At least one organization provides a floating day of paid leave to enable employees to acknowledge Dr. King by volunteering in a way that they deem appropriate.

DiversityInc surveyed 587 participants for its DiversityInc Top 50 survey and found that 96% of the companies in the survey observe the holiday in some way. Sixty-five percent of the companies that close also plan additional events and volunteer efforts for employees, and 91% of the participants that stay open plan additional events and volunteer efforts for employees. Beyond office closures, the survey showed that companies rely on several strategies to commemorate MLK Day.

As reported by DiversityInc, 40% of the companies surveyed encourage employees to utilize the holiday as a day of service and volunteerism, with some companies such as Kaiser Permanente (No. 3 in the DiversityInc Top 50), Marriott International (No. 21) and Accenture (No. 12), giving employees the day off to serve nonprofits aimed at underrepresented groups in their communities.

For example, Kaiser Permanente employees broke records a few years ago with more than 7,000 volunteers for MLK Day of Service, including physicians and senior leaders, at over 130 sites across the country, serving an estimated 35,000 people. At Accenture in Charlotte, employees have served the local communities through the Habitat for Humanity MLK Day Build project, while Accenture volunteers in the Miami office were invited to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School to celebrate Dr. King's legacy and participate in various service activities. Walmart, Harland Clarke and Altria are just a few examples of other companies that encourage employees to participate in a company day of service to commemorate the occasion.

DiversityInc reports from its survey that 30% of companies' Black resource groups take the lead in planning celebrations, events and communications to promote Dr. King's message of inclusion to all employees, with the resource groups frequently volunteering within their communities as well. Here's a sampling of how that looks:

Accenture's Detroit African American employee-resource group will convene for an interactive panel discussion entitled 'Living the Dream ... the Accenture Way' to reflect on Dr. King's legacy and how diverse workplaces like Accenture, and our clients, are providing an inclusive environment and what things can be done as we continue to move forward. In coordination with the event, Accenture employees will host a canned-goods drive to collect nonperishable foods that will be donated to Detroit-based Capuchin Soup Kitchen. ... Accenture's African-American employee-resource group in Philadelphia will work with the YWCA for a day of workshops and mentoring.

--Stacey Jones, Senior Director, Corporate Marketing, Accenture

IMPACT, Humana's African-American Network Resource Group, coordinated an 'Impact Day' for Humana associates to give a day of service to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Members from all five of our Network Resource Groups volunteered at the following nonprofit organizations: Newburg Boys & Girls Club, Christian Care Community Rehabilitation Center and ElderServe.

--Kai Vaughn, Inclusion & Diversity Consultant, Humana

If you're looking for inspiration on how to get involved with MLK Day of Service as an individual or on behalf of a company, use the toolkits provided by CNCS as a way to source opportunities. Or find a specific way to serve in an area near you by clicking on this search tool.

For music lovers, #musicMLK encourages musicians and music lovers to co-create participatory events in their communities, with a special emphasis on engagement with isolated populations like hospitalized children, veterans, the elderly, the homeless, and others who are in need.

For organizers: Register your service event here and help volunteers find you. Click here to share details about your event with CNCS.

For children: Help your kids or students understand Dr. King's vision with these free, easy-to-use resources created by the Corporation for National and Community Service and Scholastic.

Best of all, commit to serve not just on one day, but throughout the year by filling out this form to make your pledge to service. In doing so you'll honor the legacy of Dr. King by making your community - and the country - a better place.

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